Wife-selling and other Black Country secrets from the past

Selling the wife – it's a Black Country thing. Or was.

Andrew Homer at the Black Country Museum.
Andrew Homer at the Black Country Museum.

It stemmed, says author Andrew Homer, from the fact that at the time it was practically impossible for poorer folk to get a legal divorce.

So the solution was to take the wife to market and sell her.

"The 'divorce' obtained through wife-selling, although illegal, would still be considered socially acceptable," says Andrew, who has written a new book called Secret Black Country revealing the area's hidden and often unusual heritage.

One such sale was at Walsall market in October 1837, and was reported by the contemporary Wolverhampton Chronicle.

"A strange and unwonted exhibition took place in Walsall market on Tuesday last," the paper said.

"A man named George Hitchinson brought his wife, Elizabeth Hitchinson, from Burntwood, for sale, a distance of eight or nine miles. They came into the market between ten and eleven o'clock in the morning, the woman being led by a halter, which was fastened round her neck and the middle of her body.

"In a few minutes after their arrival she was sold to a man of the name of Thomas Snape, a nailer, also from Burntwood. There were not many people in the market at the time.

"The purchase money was 2s 6d [about 13p today] and all the parties seemed satisfied with the bargain.

The report of a 1837 wife sale in Walsall.

"The husband was glad to get rid of his frail rib, who, it seems, had been living with Snape three years, at any price, erroneously imagining that because he had brought her through a turnpike gate in a halter, and had publicly sold her in the market before witnesses, that he is thereby freed from all responsibility and liability with regard to her future maintenance and support."

Wife-selling, which Andrew says was also practised elsewhere, was celebrated in a local ballad, the Ballad of Bandy Leg Lett, which went: "This is to gi' notice, That Bandy Leg Lett, Will sell his wife Sally, For what he con get."

Another example came at Wednesbury, the seller being Moses "Maggs" Whitehouse, also known as Rough Moey, who only had one good eye and one good leg after a pit explosion. For sale was his much younger wife Sally, along with her baby.

Rough Moey acted as auctioneer. A bid of 18 pennies was not successful and the successful bidder was a young collier called Jack, who offered 2s 6d and three gallons of ale.

It was reported that Sally was "evidently in her best attire... no doubt in honour of the occasion."

Andrew, who was secretary of the Black Country Society before retiring to Devon, has been researching and writing about the West Midlands for many years.

In his book he examines among other things the origins of the Black Country," which for the purposes of his book he defines as the area taken in by the metropolitan boroughs of Dudley, Walsall, Sandwell, and Wolverhampton.

Attracting huge crowds in the area at the start of the 20th century was a tour by Buffalo Bill and his Wild West show. Buffalo Bill will have had special reason to remember his visit to Dudley in 1903 because he was robbed of his jewellery during one of his performances. The thief turned out to be his own valet who got six months' hard labour after being tried at Dudley.

Buffalo Bill, fourth from left, with some of his Wild West show performers.

Andrew puts in the spotlight some local characters, including the Tipton Slasher, a champion bare knuckle boxer called William Perry, and examines a mystery regarding his last resting place.

"It is claimed that the Slasher's remains were removed from St John's churchyard in Dudley and reinterred beneath his statue in Coronation Gardens, Tipton."

The story goes that a small group of Tipton men decided to bring the Slasher's remains "home" and bury them under where the new statue was to be erected.

"The truth might never be revealed without digging beneath the statue," says Andrew.

An oil painting believed to feature the Tipton Slasher.

Secret Black Country is published by Amberley and costs £15.99.

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